Onsen are fairly common throughout Japan, but unfortunately there are no really “true” Japanese onsen experiences in Okinawa like you would get in the mainland of Japan. There are some places that qualify as onsen in Okinawa, but to get the real feel of onsen, one must travel to the mainland since onsen are not as large a part of Ryukyuan culture. In Okinawa, while most of the places that qualify as onsen are fairly nice, they are more like sento, “public baths”; none of them have that true Japanese feeling of onsen. That being said, I will introduce some nice places to try if you visit Okinawa and do not have a chance to visit the mainland. Later maybe I will make part II and introduce my favorite spots on the mainland to visit onsen.
温泉 onsen: hot springs
銭湯 sento: public bath
スパ supa: spa
*Special Note: although many onsen and sento are lightening up rules regarding tattoos, some still have strict no tattoo policies, so it is best to check in advance if this will be an issue. In Okinawa, currently NONE of the onsen or sento I have visited allow tattoo in the public bath, however some will allow you to book the private baths (usually used for couples or families), such as Senaga-jima and Yuinchi onsens (address listed at the bottom of the page). All this being said, I have on occasion seen very small “fashion” tattoo in the onsen… while many people may not say anything if they see you with a small tattoo, I cannot however encourage you to try to enter the onsen with a tattoo even if you try to cover it with a bandage. It is very possible there will be that one person who does complain and management will ask you to leave. Or people may notice, give you stink-eye and say nothing, instead giving “foreigners” 外国人 a bad reputation for lack of manners and ignoring the rules (and seriously, most Japanese are not rule-breakers, it simply is not how things are done here). If you have a tattoo and want to try onsen either try booking the private bath at the aforementioned places or better yet, head up to some of the rural areas in the mainland which may allow tattoo. For instance, I know for certain that the Dogo onsen in Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture), Arima onsen in Kobe and some places in Hokkaido and Nagano that do allow tattoo. Plus, these places will quite honestly be a more authentic experience. Just something to keep in mind.
My favorite place to visit is in Ginowan behind the DonQ, at the Enagic Natural Onsen Aroma エナジック天然温泉アロマ. This is the closest to a mainland Japanese onsen experience that you can get in Okinawa. It has several baths (including 1 outside that overlooks a Japanese-esque garden and some jet baths), a dry sauna, a salt sauna, relaxation rooms, and a restaurant. It also has many services such as scrubs, facials, and massages; I highly recommend trying the scrub and massage, you will come out feeling like a new person. The best part for me is that there is a significant student discount; if you are not a student, they have point cards and various specials. For instance couples’ day is a discount day if you bring a friend/husband/significant other. It is open from 6 am -midnight. Adult entrance fee (no discounts) is 1500円, high school/university 1000円, while elementary & middle school children are half price, and younger are free.
There are some more upscale type places, such as Senaga-jima Spa (near the Naha airport, indoor/outdoor onsen overlooking the ocean), Yuinchi Hotel Spa (a.k.a. Bathing Ape or Apeman Spa, in Nanjo with only indoor Ryukyu mud onsen), and EM Wellness Costa Vista Resort (Kitanakagusuku, indoor onsen); I list the exact addresses and additional descriptions for these at the bottom of the post should you decide to check them out. These places are a bit more expensive and the baths are overall nice, but I prefer the atmosphere of Onsen Aroma better. The main reason to visit these places is that they offer some upscale treatments which are fabulous (and the prices reflects that!), just not something I can afford so often. These places also offer tasty lunch buffets in their restaurants. Many of the other resorts/hotels on island also offer an onsen (or some just a sento), but the ones listed are the bigger (and nicer) ones that I am familiar with and have reasonably priced entrance fees.
Loisir hotel in Naha also offers public onsen access, which sadly I have not been to, probably due to the very expensive entry fee. Most entrance fees are between 1000-1500yen here in Okinawa; the Loisir is 3000-4000yen… yikes. Same with Okinawa Spa Resort EXES; a visitor pass (non-overnight guest) for the spa bathes is 3500yen… and it is technically not an onsen, just public bath (sento). Okinawa Orion Resort in Motobu has a technical onsen; a visitor pass is 2150yen, so while still costly it is not outrageous. The Rikkarikka-yu りっかりっか湯 in the Naha Central Hotel has some more affordable entrance fees of varying combinations; you can try the sauna, the bedrock spa (ganbanyoku), and the onsen for a fairly reasonable set fee of 2100yen– a pretty good deal.
There is also a place in American Village (Chatan) called Terme Villa Chura-yu ちゅらーゆ (also romanized as “Chula-U”), but I do not particularly recommend it. It allows tattoos if you can fully cover them, but only in the outside mixed swimming section. Indoor onsen area, no tattoos per their posted regulations (though I am sure some people ignore this, again making foreigners look poorly). The onsen area was not very good, nor very clean when I visited. Honestly, I would skip it unless it is truly your only option.
In Onna, the Renaissance hotel has an onsen onsite, but only for hotel guests staying on the premium floor. Sadly I have not been able to try it… maybe I will try staying there one day if I can find a good hotel deal. But again same as all of the others listed, the website explicitly states no tattoo, even though this is an exclusive place where you are paying a lot of $$$! Kind of surprising really.
If you make it out to Miyako-jima, there are also 2 onsen locations; Miyako-jima onsen and Shigira Ougon onsen. I believe they state no tattoo, but I don’t know if they are “flexible” on that. Sometimes the more “rural” places are.
These next 2 are not really onsen– Kanna Thalasso in Ginoza and Bade Haus on Kume-jima use deep-sea water, not hot spring water. The Kanna Thalasso website indicates no tattoo allowed; Bade Haus may use the pool only if tattoo are covered completely.
In addition to these few onsen facilities, there are several sento (public bath) around the island, often as part of a gym. I have visited a few here in Okinawa, but they usually are much more simple compared to onsen. Sometimes they have jetted pools or whatnot.
NOTE: they can not call them onsen if they do not use natural hot spring water, as per the regulations. And again, most if not all places state “no tattoo allowed.”
Another interesting option for those interested in Japanese bathing culture is the ganban-yoku 岩盤浴, bedrock bath (sort of like a sauna); click on the link to read more about it, as it is tattoo-friendly since you wear sauna clothes for this experience. Some of these are women-only, but some have options for both genders.
So now that you may have decided to visit an onsen, there is a basic procedure for entering the onsen or a sento.
When you first walk into the building, there will be shoe lockers; remove your shoes and take the key to the front desk. At the desk, you will turn in your shoe key and they will give you a locker key for the bath (segregated baths, men and women) with towels (usually 1 large, 1 small but it depends on the place) and set of clothes that look a little like pjs called samue 作務衣 (some places may give you a yukata instead). You pay the entrance fee up front; sometimes the locker key you receive will have a code that they scan if you want to receive scrub or massage services, or even purchase drinks, which you then pay for at the end when you check out.
Go to the locker room, to the locker number on your key. Get naked. Yup. No swimsuits. Don’t feel self-conscious cuz it is just old ladies (or men depending on your gender) and they do not really judge. I mean, if you are a foreigner, yeah, they are gonna look simply because you are different, but really, no one cares. Anyway, strip down, neatly fold or hang your clothes in your locker, get your towel (and any toiletries you might have brought, for instance I have a scrubby bath towel from the Daiso/100 yen store) and head to the baths. Just put your key band around your wrist or ankle; if you are a lady you can even use it to tie up you hair in a ponytail or bun. And seriously, just use the smaller towel, leave the big towel in your locker, or at least off to the side, otherwise it will get wet and not dry you off when you actually need it. And do not try to wrap the tiny towel all the way around you, you will look silly; just embrace the naked, draping the small towel length-wise in front of your body if you want to cover any bits.
When you enter the bathing room, grab a stool by one of the shower stations and rinse yourself off; there is usually shampoo, body soap, and conditioner all provided at the stations (depending on how fancy the facility is, for some cheaper onsen/sento you need to bring your own shampoo/conditioner or purchase from the front desk). When you feel appropriately clean and rinsed off, time to soak away in the bath and sweat it out in the sauna (remember to make sure all of the soap if off your body). Repeat. If you go into a sauna, remember to rinse your body before you go back into the tubs. I am sure to dip into every bath, even the cold ones. Yes, there are both hot and cold… 湯 is hot water, 冷 is cold. They always display the temperature somewhere, so look along the walls or sides. Every bath has different healing properties with different minerals, which is also listed somewhere in the onsen, though if you do not read Japanese, it might not help you very much.
Etiquette: for anyone with long hair, tie up your hair so it does not get in the water! You will get stink-eye if you let it drape into the water. I use my small towel to wrap around my head and keep the stray long strands from escaping; you will see this is a common technique. Occasionally people will fold it into a neat little rectangle and rest it on their head, but I do not see this very often in Okinawa. Also, it is considered rude to soak your small towel into the bathwater (although I have seen some obaasans do it anyway). As far as noise, it depends on the place– I have been to some that are practically silent, and others that are alive with chattering gossip. Just use your common sense and do as the locals do.
Whenever you finish, change into the clothes they gave you, grab a drink (milk is popular and sold in small glass bottles), sit in a massage chair, watch tv, etc. The locker rooms have hair dryers, face lotion, hairbrushes (these are separated in a clean bin, usually a UV box, and a used bin), cotton swabs, lotion, etc. You usually do not need to bring anything, since most places have some amenities for you. I have a small bag of extra toiletries I bring for aftercare. Again, it depends on the place, some of the cheaper places provide very little in the way of amenities.
At the end, toss your towels into the laundry bin in the locker room, then bring your clothes and key back to the front desk (in some cases there may also be a laundry bin for your sauna clothes). Pay your balance, and they will give you the shoe locker key.
Also, as a fun cultural note, watch the Japanese movie “Thermae Romae” (based on a manga). It is hilarious, and gives me better appreciation of the bathing culture.
Addresses for top recommended Okinawa onsen:
Enagic Natural Onsen Aroma: 〒901-2223 沖縄県宜野湾市大山7-7-1
~My favorite– several nice baths, steam sauna, salt sauna, and even an outdoor bath with a cute Japanese-style garden. Several affordable esthe options, including scrubs and massages. Shokudo restaurant on-site. Recommended for a down-to-earth experience that won’t break the bank.
Yuinchi Hotel and Spa (Bathing Ape): 〒901-1412 沖縄県南城市佐敷字新里1688
~Interesting baths, all indoor. These baths contain Ryukyu “healing” mud, which is a little bit of a unique experience. You have a view over the southern valley. The buffet restaurant in the hotel (different than the small restaurant in the onsen building!) is AMAZING and well worth the price (2300yen for lunch). The baths are so-so, but it has special Ryukyu mud properties or something that sounds fancy.
Senaga-jima Hotel and Onsen Spa: 〒901-0233 沖縄県豊見城市字瀬長174-5
~Tons of delicious restaurants nearby. Admission to bath is reasonable, treatments are expensive but high quality. Indoor AND outdoor baths looking over the ocean (very beautiful). High end type of place, recommended for a luxury experience.
EM Wellness Resort Costa Vista: 〒901-2311 沖縄県中頭郡北中城村喜舎場1478番地
~Awesome healthy buffet at the resort restaurant! The baths are decent (all indoor), and the treatments focus on wellness, so you leave feeling fantastic and refreshed. Pricier than Aroma onsen, but not too unreasonable. For an extra fee you can also try their bedrock bath (ganbanyoku).